Ice

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Antarctica has its wildlife, its sweeping vistas, its stormy seas… and it has its little beauties. Through glacial ice, sunlight refracts out the most intense blue you can imagine. Cotton and Sisse, the National Geographic photographers on board the Orion, talked about the color of Antarctica in photography. They play with the fact that so very much of the landscape here is blue: water, sky, fog in the dim light of dawn, and, of course, the ice. Snowfall year after year forms glaciers, moving rivers of accumulated ice… glaciers crush all the air out of that ice, every air bubble that makes normal ice look white, and leave compacted masses of deep blue frozen water.

With all that snow and ice and cold, cold color, it’s easy to lose sight of the real depth of the landscape. There’s a lot you can do with the washed-out bleak look, but my favorite photos from the trip are ones in which the blue is featured, not as a chilly background, but as a glow like the piece of ice above, or even better, broken by little spots of bright color.

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Our orange parkas really helped in that endeavor. We stick out against that background, tiny orange people against the overwhelming blue-gray of this glacier on Elephant Island. As an expedition with a thematic tie to Sir Ernest Shackleton’s epic journey a century ago, it was an especially poignant sight- Elephant Island served as a camp for Shackleton’s men for bleak, blue months while their leader and a few others crossed a perilously rough stretch of water in essentially a rowboat. Our hardy zodiaks and their brightly-colored contents would have been a welcome sight for those men. I hope that when they were rescued four and a half months after they watched their last hope sail away, the Chilean ship Yelcho that picked them up was flying some good colors. But maybe by then they’d really come to appreciate the true beauty of the blue.

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They’re Everywhere and They Don’t Eat Crabs

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And those are the two most important things to know about crabeater seals. Well, maybe not the most important. And maybe a bit misleading.

They’re not EVERYWHERE. But there are more crabeater seals on the planet than there are ALL OTHER SEALS. That’s right, just crabeaters might outnumber the entire rest of the pinnipeds. Then again, they might not- the population estimate on Wikipedia gives a total number of 7-75 million crabeater seals in Antarctica (…that’s a lot of uncertainty). Either way, they’re among the most numerous large mammals in the world, topped only by humans. Anyways… Crabeater seals, Lobodon carcinophaga, are thus named not because they “eat crabs,” but because they do in fact have “lobed teeth” and have (clearly) been wildly successful in hunting the most abundant Antarctic food source, krill. Krill are not crabs. More on krill to come.

From the numbers we saw, we would never have guessed how many crabeaters exist in the Antarctic. They tend to spread out, one or two at a time on the pack ice and sea ice, near their food sources and the water in which they transform from graceless meaty grubs on solid ground to graceful… meaty grubs in the water. Of all the majestic things about Antarctica, I’m not sure these were one: their ice floes tended to be considerably poopier than seal-unoccupied floes (that red stuff on the seal’s tail in that photo? Not a reflection), their general behavior when we saw them tended to be either contortionist stretching, fighting, or boneless napping, and they couldn’t compare to the size and grandeur of nearby whales, whose poop we never saw. But on occasion they sure were cute!

One of the major benefits of the National Geographic/Lindblad trip was the presence of amazing photographers and people who appreciated the photographers’ desire to spend forever setting up a shot and then taking ten thousand iterations. Getting a photo like this- seal sitting up, face amiably composed, poop more or less obscured, lovely icy background- took probably half an hour of lurking near this seal. A photographer for The Magazine might have spend days setting this up, and as a result would have gotten a much nicer photo… and a very cold butt. The crew and staff on the Orion were awesome about giving us enough time to play and explore and take obnoxious numbers of seal, whale, penguin, and bird photos (not to mention photos of straight-up ice, water, clouds, mountains, the boat itself, each other…), but still managed to get us all back aboard and moving in good humor and with entirely unfrozen butts. They knew we’d never want to leave… but they also knew we’d never want to miss out on whatever was next.